Monday, September 25, 2017

Lol Tolhurst - Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys (2016)

Title: Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys
Author: Lol Tolhurst
Publisher: De Capo Press (US), Quercus (UK)
Year: 2016

[US cover.]

Rock star memoirs appear to be in vogue these days. It seems like any musician that wants to get taken seriously has to write one, and getting contracts must not be very difficult. In the world of musicians I follow, this trend started to pick up steam with Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (2012) and Peter Hook's The Haçienda: How Not to Run a Club (2009). Then there was the inevitable stir caused by Morrissey's Autobiography (2013). Tellingly, each of those artists has written subsequent books. We've come far enough now that it isn't just the frontpeople of famous bands writing these memoirs. We've got David J's Who Killed Mister Moonlight? (2014), Johnny Marr's Set the Boy Free (2016), and now a book from Lol Tolhurst of The Cure.

Tolhurst has some notoriety in The Cure's history. He was a cofounder that lasted right up to the release of their (arguably) most famed album, Disintegration (1989). He was known to have contributed next to nothing to said album due to being an alcoholic mess. He was originally a drummer but moved to keyboards. He was briefly the only member of the band besides Robert Smith. He was credited as cowriter on almost every song published during his tenure. He sued the band after his dismissal for co-ownership of the name and lost. He eventually made amends with Robert Smith and briefly appeared on stage with the band in 2011 for some nostalgia concerts.

It's not hard to make a case that Tolhurst has a unique story to tell. Considering that Smith has not yet written a memoir, the opportunity was perfect for another Cure insider to do so. Lol is well-suited for the job: he knew Smith since they were both five, he was there through it all for the band's rise to fame, and he's currently on good terms with Smith. Even I was curious what the most notoriously estranged member of The Cure would have to say.

While the book certainly suffices as a narrative of the friendship between two bandmates, the burden of that perspective actually serves to detract from the book. Tolhurst never once speaks ill of Smith and goes out of his way to contextualize any questionable decisions he made. The same largely goes for the other members of The Cure, although they are mentioned to a considerably lesser degree. Tolhurst details his role as a moderator and go-between for the various members of the band in the early years, but he rarely explains what the disputes and misunderstandings actually revolved around. He hardly provides any explanation for the departure of the other founding member, bassist Michael Dempsey. He glosses over the details of the (temporary) split between Smith and the band's longest-serving bassist, Simon Gallup. Any rifts between himself and Smith are described with even less detail.

Tolhurst doesn't even seem to be upset that Smith kicked him out of the band. By that point in the narrative, it has become clear that Tolhurst was an unhealthy person, and that he has since recognized it. In fact, it slowly dawns on the reader that much of the book is oriented around Tolhurst acknowledging his own failures, owning up to them, and trying to make amends. While stories of drunken revelry and dangerous behavior rarely interest me in literary form, personal redemption of this variety is at least somewhat more interesting.

About a third of the text is devoted to Tolhurst's youth and the earliest days of The Cure leading up to their debut album, Three Imaginary Boys (1979). The descriptions of Tolhurst, Smith, and Dempsey (and on-again, off-again member Porl Thompson, who designed the cover) as childhood friends is actually rather endearing. Tolhurst presents them as outsiders in a bland, boring town that they all longed to escape. Imagining Smith throwing bottles at skinheads and fending off ruffians is hard to believe but yet quite amusing.

Initially, I was anxious to get to the more exciting periods of The Cure's creative and popular peaks, but in retrospect, Tolhurst doesn't have much to offer on those eras that hasn't been said before, and the stories of the early days are imbued with a deeper personal insight. Tolhurst views the beginnings, when they still had to prove themselves, as something special and magical. Perhaps it felt more like a tight group of friends trying to do something different rather than a commercial enterprise. It may also be that Tolhurst's addiction hadn't yet consumed him and he had more to contribute to the band in those days.

Anyone reading the book with an expectation of learning something about The Head on the Door that they didn't already know will be let down. Anyone who isn't already a fan probably wouldn't become one by reading it. But if you are looking for the story of a rock star that fell from grace and perhaps has learned from his mistakes, this might be it. Tolhurst's story is rather sad and occasionally frustrating, but at least you could read this and learn something about recovery from alcoholism and where to go from there.

[UK cover.]

Score: B-

P.S.: This book is a prime example of why I don't read the back jackets of books. The text on my US edition is literally the last paragraph of the book.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Sisters of Mercy / The Membranes - Live 2017.09.12

I've been a fan of The Sisters of Mercy ever since I first heard the ridiculous incessant drumbeat that opens "Dominion/Mother Russia", years before I started this blog. But considering how rarely the Sisters tour the USA, and that the band has apparently never played any American city I've lived in, I never had the chance to see them until now.

Artist: The Sisters of Mercy
Venue: Columbiahalle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 12 September 2017
Opening Act: The Membranes

The Membranes' setlist (thanks to setlist.fm):
1. The Universe Explodes into a Billion Photons of Pure White Light
2. Dark Energy
3. In the Graveyard
4. Do the Supernova
5. Space Junk
6. Black Is the Colour
7. The Hum of the Universe
8. Myths and Legends

The Sisters of Mercy's setlist:
01. More
02. Ribbons
03. Doctor Jeep → Detonation Boulevard
04. Crash and Burn
05. Walk Away
06. No Time to Cry
07. Body and Soul
08. Marian
09. Alice
10. Arms
11. Dominion/Mother Russia
12. Summer
13. First and Last and Always
14. Rumble [Link Wray cover]
15. Flood II
16. Something Fast

Encore:
17. That's When I Reach For My Revolver [Mission of Burma cover]
18. Temple of Love
19. Lucretia My Reflection
20. Vision Thing
21. This Corrosion

The Membranes might have claimed to be cut from the same cloth as Joy Division, The Fall, and The Sisters of Mercy, but Blackpool is a resort town, not a post-industrial wasteland. Vocalist/bassist John Robb, carrying the torch as the band's only original member, performed with gusto while his bandmates mostly hid in dark corners. The two guitarists rarely took what one might consider a traditional solo. They instead preferred to make odd sorts of sounds, albeit mostly of the thick and distorted variety. The bass work was simple but rhythmically effective, which is more than I could say for the vocals. I caught some whiffs of Swans or even Bauhaus in their heavy drone, and their occasional sparser moments had me thinking they had more to offer. The set mostly consisted of songs from their latest album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy (2015), with simple lyrics marveling at galactic complexities.

[The Membranes.]

Despite that The Sisters of Mercy haven't released a new album since Vision Thing in 1990, let alone a single since 1993, they haven't given up or even really slowed down. They tour almost every year and regularly play new songs. (There were three such songs on this night.) Their setlists are full of classic hits and album cuts, often with a few unusual covers thrown in the mix. This tour has gotten some attention for the inclusion of their early single "Walk Away", which they hadn't played since 1985. They're a strange and unique band, and they've captured my amusement by straddling the line of serious-minded, politically charged, club-oriented, hard-edged rock and campy, dramatic, over-the-top, ironic gothic rock.

When the house lights fell, a large black curtain fell to the ground to reveal a huge installation of mirrors. Meanwhile, the band emerged from a cloud of fog machines. As the band started into "More", the crowd became wild with excitement. So far, the show was just as I'd hoped.

The two guitarists, Chris Catalyst and Ben Christo, were both more interested in showmanship and heavy-handedness than I'd like, but the Sisters have always been about putting on a show, so that didn't bother me. The lack of a steady bassist over the last decade or two has become as much of a joke as the lack of a drummer since the band's earliest days, so Ravey Davey's comical role at the helm of a series of laptops was also no surprise. Andrew Eldritch maintained his odd demeanor, ever-present sunglasses, and only looked slightly more like a goblin than I had anticipated.

However, about a minute into that first song, I realized something was wrong: Eldritch can't sing anymore.

Something must have changed since the last time I listened to a live bootleg from the band. While the guitarists pranced and Davey danced, Eldritch merely struck farcical poses and croaked into his microphone. Instead of his booming bass vocals summoning some sort of anarchic revolution, all he could produce was groans, whines, and an occasional disturbing yelp. It was hopeless to try to discern lyrics. A bare minimum of melodic content was provided by the guitarists, who occasionally sang the backing vocal hooks.

Without Eldritch driving the songs, the show lost any magic it should have had. The music devolved into aggressive beats and stereotypical distorted guitars. What would have otherwise been an impressive setlist became only marginally distinct from generic hard rock. To further make matters worse, songs like "More" and "This Corrosion", which depend upon a long build-up to deliver their full dramatic power, were performed in truncated versions, cutting short any energy the band tried to invest in them.

While the light show was good, smoke and mirrors can only go so far. Was this, too, just another opportunity for Andrew Eldritch to troll the world?

[The Sisters of Mercy]

Scores:
The Membranes: C+
The Sisters of Mercy: D

P.S. Thanks to the Sisters Wiki.